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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, December 02, 2015 10:42 pm

Same-sex benefits not found at colleges

Rosa Salter Rodriguez | The Journal Gazette

Last month, Mennonite-affiliated Goshen College announced that it would extend benefits to the spouses of legally married same-sex couples. But the decision isn’t likely to signal a rush by other Fort Wayne-area religious colleges and universities to do the same.

That’s because few of those institutions have openly gay or lesbian staff members – in part because of little-known policies that make it unlikely they would be hired in the first place.

Take, for example, Grace College in Winona Lake. The evangelical Christian college requires applicants to agree to a 12-section document about beliefs in God, Jesus and the Scriptures or explain why they don’t, according to its online application.

The college also has job seekers sign a "Statement of Community Expectations" that precludes homosexual behavior, among other activities, as "expressly prohibited by Scripture and … not acceptable among members of the Grace Schools community."

Such statements are not uncommon among conservative Christian and other religious institutions of higher learning. Marion-based Indiana Wesleyan University, with a center in Fort Wayne, has a Community Lifestyle Statement that cites "homosexual behavior" as well as drinking, possession of pornography, gambling and most dancing as unacceptable.

Huntington University’s Community Life Agreement and an accompanying document states that "sexual relations are reserved for the institution of marriage between a man and a woman" and "other types of sexual relations are clearly condemned (Romans 1:24-27, I Corinthians 6:9-10)."

Huntington’s church affiliation is with the Church of the United Brethren in Christ.

Bethel College in Mishawaka’s Covenant of Lifestyle, in addition to expecting employees to recognize that marriage is between a man and a woman, states that "Bethel desires an environment whose people demonstrate behaviors aligned with their birth gender."

All the colleges’ statements are posted online.

Such agreements are legal, said Steve Sanders, assistant professor specializing in sexuality law at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law in Bloomington.

Sanders said Indiana does not include sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination law, and even if it did, such restrictions probably would be seen as a constitutional exercise of freedom of religion.

"You start from the principle that it’s not unconstitutional because these are private religious institutions," he said.

But much remains undetermined, Sanders added.

If someone would be fired from a religious college for homosexual behavior after signing such a statement, he said, it would likely be up to courts to decide whether the statement was an enforceable contract or "an aspirational document."

State law allows firing if an employment contract is broken by an employee, and indeed for any reason not covered by anti-discrimination law, he said.

That law prohibits discrimination by most employers on the basis of race, sex, religion, color, sex, disability, national origin and ancestry. But the law exempts any "school, educational or charitable religious institution owned or conducted by or affiliated with any church or other religious institution," said Marco Deckard, program director of the employment investigative unit of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission.

Whether the newly passed and amended Religious Freedom Restoration Act could serve as a defense if a college or university would fire someone for homosexual orientation or activity remains to be seen, Sanders said.

That law restricts governmental burdening of religious freedom and, as amended, says RFRA can’t be used as a defense by businesses who refuse service to homosexuals. But "the status of religious colleges or nonprofits is more of a gray area," Sanders said.

Also unclear, he said, is whether local ordinances that ban discrimination against gays and lesbians and/or other sexual minorities would supersede the state law that does not include them. Deckard said local commissions lack enforcement powers.

"It’s very difficult territory, and that’s what we find ourselves in," Sanders said.

At Goshen, where the City Council last week put off a vote on adding sexual orientation and gender identity to its local anti-discrimination ordinance, the college’s action came after several years of discussion, said Jodi Beyeler, college spokeswoman.

The decision also followed a vote by the Mennonite Church USA that rejected permitting same-sex marriages but called for "forbearance" in tolerating different views on the issue based on different interpretations of Scripture, she said. The change followed, and was in part influenced by, the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriages but was not prompted by it, she said.

Beyeler said the school would now permit hiring of people in legal same-sex marriages; before, if gay or lesbians were hired, they would have been expected to remain celibate.

Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, took similar action in July. The Mennonite Education Agency, which oversees the church’s institutions of higher learning, allows them to set their own hiring practices. And as a confessional, not creedal, denomination, the church does not demand complete agreement with every part of its Confession of Faith, Beyeler said.

However, both schools now face possible expulsion from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which at the end of July committed itself to further discussion, according to an online statement.

Goshen joined Roman Catholic University of Notre Dame and St. Mary’s College in South Bend as religiously affiliated higher-ed institutions in Indiana that have extended benefits to the spouses of same-sex couples.

The University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne does not, according to spokeswoman Trois Hart.

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, who opposed Notre Dame’s and St. Mary’s actions, pointed to a 2003 Vatican-issued document as the framework of policy. It states: "In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty."

The document continues, "One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application."

Diocese spokeswoman Stephanie Patka said in a statement: "The bishop continues to reiterate the church’s teaching that homosexual persons must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity, while also upholding the Church’s belief that male-female complementarity is essential to marriage."

Before the Supreme Court ruling, more than 70 educational institutions, including several evangelical Christian colleges, wrote congressional leaders expressing concern about losing tax-exempt status if a right to same-sex marriage was upheld. They cited the precedent of Bob Jones University, which lost that status in the 1980s because of opposition to interracial marriage and dating.

Signer R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that many religious institutions could not afford to operate without it and might have to close.

Still, some institutions are comfortable expanding policies. Manchester University in North Manchester, affiliated with the Church of the Brethren, has had sexual orientation as part of its anti-discrimination policy for about a decade and added gender identity about a couple of years back, university President Dave McFadden said.

Several years ago, he said, benefits were made available to those in any "marriage-like" relationship, whether the partners were of the same sex or opposite sexes.

"We don’t ask about religious affiliation or sexual orientation when we hire," he said, adding: "Part of this is based on our mission statement, and … the other thing about Manchester is that we always say to people that we’re a place where our students learn through differences, so we don’t have a statement of faith of lifestyle statement that faculty or students need to sign."

The steps have not been taken without discussion about same-sex marriage. In 2013, the college’s board refused to take a position on an Indiana constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, rousing the ire of some students and staff who signed a letter opposing the amendment.

There also has been some friction with the school’s denomination.

"The denomination would say that same-sex marriage is not acceptable, but it also says we should not discriminate against people based on sexual orientation," McFadden said. But "our policies and procedures are not bound by the denomination."

For religious colleges, the issue is not likely to go away. "It’s as difficult for individual colleges and universities, whether religious or not, to deal with this as it is for society as a whole," McFadden said.

rsalter@jg.net